As the dangers of 'bath salts' take center stage, U of M researcher explains the dangerous evolution of synthetic drugs
June 28, 2012
A series of drug-fueled crimes across the country has reignited the discussion around the dangers of synthetic drugs – specifically “bath salts” – and have called the legality of selling the drugs over-the-counter directly into question.
The drug, which affects the human brain much like methamphetamine, is extremely dangerous but complicated to legislate because the drug is rarely created the same way. To prosecute users or dealers under analog drug laws would require an examination of every specific bath salt product.
An expert who can speak on the creation, effects and dangers of synthetic narcotics is:
David Ferguson, Ph.D., professor and director of graduate studies in the University of Minnesota’s School of Pharmacy and creator of the popular DOA (Drugs of Abuse) course.
“Bath salts” or “Plant Food” are common nicknames for a class of synthetic drugs with effects similar to methamphetamine but are often formulated using synthetically modified cathinones, such as methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). Cathinone is a potent stimulant derived from the natural product khat and is a well-known illegal drug of abuse.
Despite some of their “natural” ingredients, bath salts still target the brain’s dopamine and norepinephrine transport systems in the same way as methamphetamine. The unpredictable potency, purity and toxicity levels of the products make them volatile and dangerous, especially to teenagers and college students.
“Because of the way bath salts are made, the chemical compounds vary drastically from product to product,” Ferguson said. “Using a gram from one brand can be a very different experience than using a gram of another, because the second type might be even fifty or a hundred times more potent.”
According to Ferguson there are a number of other concerns around bath salt use:
- Purity levels. These drugs are manufactured outside of regulatory guidelines and often contain impurities. Chemical impurities from illegal manufacturing often show extreme toxicities with long term health effects.
- Potency. Some variations may contain 90 percent of the active derivative while others have just one percent. The user has no control over the dose, so overdose risk is high.
- Varying creation guidelines. There is no official “guideline” for making bath salts, which leads to some manufacturers adding ingredients that expand quantity using fillers. These fillers can cause a negative and possibly deadly reaction in some users.
- Issues for current drug users. For users transitioning from common street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin to bath salts, the reward/high is not as intense with bath salts as it may be with a user’s usual drug of choice. This leads to higher usage and an increase in potential of abuse, leading to aggressive behaviors and severe health complications.
“Drug users switching to bath salts need a higher dose to achieve the same high,” said Ferguson. “They end up using more bath salts, creating a buildup of the drug in the body. The user can then experience a ‘superman effect,’ allowing them to feel superhuman strength, avoid pain and act aggressively.”
Experts and political leaders are continuing to push for better policing of these drugs. Bans are being enacted in several states, including Minnesota. The FDA has banned substances containing MDPV and comparable base drugs, but only temporarily. Congress and FDA officials are currently investigating the effectiveness and necessity of a permanent ban on these substances.
To schedule an interview with Ferguson, contact Caroline Marin, 612-624-5680, firstname.lastname@example.org or Miranda Taylor, 612-626-2767, email@example.com.
Expert Alert is a service provided by the University News Service. Delivered regularly, Expert Alert is designed to connect university experts to today’s breaking news and current events. For an archive and other useful media services, visit www.umn.edu/news. Views expressed by experts do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Minnesota.